What do you do at Rhinegeist?
I am the Director of Education, which means a lot of things, really. I spearhead the internal education of our team, running tastings, trainings, and education sessions. Additionally, I work with distributors, retailers, and — coming soon — the general public (Brewcademy) to spread around beer knowledge as much as possible!
How’d you end up in that role?
I started in March of 2015. I came in as a brewer and jumped in on the JV Northwest brew system with the team that was here, just in the rotation doing production stuff. After a few months, Bob [Bonder, co-founder], Bryant [Goulding, co-founder] and Jim [Matt, Chief Science Officer] came to me and said, “We’re thinking about cider…have you ever made cider before?” I made the mistake of saying “yeah, I’ve homebrewed it a few times.” *laughs* So then it became my job to “figure out” cider.
That was actually really fun, it was a nice challenge. It gave me something to do beyond the normal day-to-day — at that time, we were running around pretty hard. I went to Listermann’s and bought a bunch of homebrew buckets and yeast packets, got some samples of juice, tried different fermentations and different recipes, and we would meet every few weeks to try things. That was how we built the beginnings of our cider recipes!
Speaking of cider, talk to me about Bubbles. What was the origin of that brew?
*laughs* Bubbles was originally supposed to be a one-off specialty cider! We’d been making Semi Dry and Dry Hopped for maybe six months and we were like “let’s do something draft-only, something new and different” for the cider program. We figured it would be fun to make Semi Dry — which ferments very dry because the fruit sugars are very available to the yeast — and then we’d go back in and add apple juice to add sweetness. Eventually, we said “why don’t we use another fruit instead of apples?”
So we reached out to our juice guys and got a bunch of samples, sat down in the lab with pipettes and droppers and tried all sorts of different fruit in the cider. That’s how we landed on that mix of peach and cranberry that’s in Bubbles — they counterbalance each other very well.
So we made a 40 barrel batch and it was pretty popular *laughs*. It was called “Bubble Goose” at the time, which I believe is a Notorious B.I.G. reference. So we made it again, this time 100 barrels. And then we made 150 barrels, and then all of the sudden it was in cans, and now it’s the sensation that is Bubbles. It really just came from a group of us experimenting and wanting to put something different out there.
So after cider, what came next in your trajectory here at Rhinegeist?
As the cider program got going, we were also bringing the BrauKon brewing system online. So, we were in the midst of transitioning our production to that brewhouse, expanding the cellar side of our operation, which took a year. I got to a point where I was ready to try something else, but didn’t want to leave Rhinegeist.
When I first started, Jim was doing these “beer school” education sessions every Wednesday. Unfortunately, it was the easiest thing to let fall to the bottom of the priority list. So we looked at that and said “those were really fun,” but we realized we needed to dedicate time to it to keep it going. So I sat down with Jim, Cole [Hackbarth, Brewery Operations Manager], Bob and Bryant and pitched an education program. I said “we’re growing really fast, we’re hiring a ton of people — let’s make sure everyone is on the same page. The more knowledgeable everyone is, the better we represent ourselves, the better we can explain things to the public when they’re in the taproom or in the market.”
To their credit, they were on board, and last Fall I transitioned full-time into the education role. I manage our Cicerone® program, both beginner and advanced, and work with various departments to manage beer information and make sure that it’s all up to date and accurate.
What did you have for breakfast?
Ooh, I actually had leftover quiche. Yeah I had a little bit of a brunch party over the weekend, so I had some leftover quiche. It was actually made by JD (Leininger, Taproom). But for standard breakfast I usually have a bowl of cereal, maybe a piece of toast, coffee.
Give us your quick life story.
I was born and raised in the Raleigh area of North Carolina. Spent my formative years there. Went to college at the University of North Carolina and was a Biology major. Managed to get myself a Bachelor of Arts in Biology, which I always think was a neat little trick — it’s less calculus and physics *laughs*. After that, I worked as a marine biology research tech. Taught high school for a year — actually at the same high school that I went to, which was pretty fascinating. If you’ve never had a beer with any of your high school teachers, you’re missing out — it’s kind of a cool experience *laughs*.
Then I went back to school and did a Masters in Biological Sciences at Clemson. Got to do some cool travel, and some fun research on sea slugs and sea urchins, marine invertebrate biology. During grad school and during that research, I started really getting into craft beer and had a buddy who was doing a startup. I had let him know that I didn’t have any money, but that I’d love to help. That’s how I got involved with Mystery Brewing in Hillsborough, NC. I was there pre-day one, it was me and Erik, the owner, kind of running the show for a little while. I was there for about three and a half years before I came to Rhinegeist.
Do you have a spirit animal?
I somewhat expected this question. I don’t know that I do. The only thing I can think is that I have a tattoo of an Irish Elk!
It harkens back to my background in evolutionary biology. Neither Irish, nor an elk, they’re often cited as an example of a process called “runaway selection.” Their antlers just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger as the females preferred larger and larger antlers. It was hard for them to feed themselves and survive with these massive antlers.
As an educated person, do you think you could pull off a David Attenborough accent in a video voice-over?
No, probably not *laughs*. I do love Sir David though.
Do you have a nickname?
Shields or Shieldsy. At my age, there are a lot of guys named Chris. At one point I was “Chris Sh.” in one of my classes because there were two Chris Ss. You start going by the last name pretty quickly.
Talk about the challenges of building an education program from scratch.
It was fun and challenging to build the education program because there aren’t a lot of public models of breweries or really any businesses’ programs. A lot of those programs are internal and not talked about.
I absolutely reached out to some other breweries — Dogfish Head, New Belgium, Sierra Nevada — got some guidance from them. I used a little bit of my experience from going through a couple levels of the Cicerone® program, I think it’s a good framework and is something we’ve built some our program around. Every employee has to be a Certified Beer Server, the first level. It’s something we can train internally that has external certification.
It’s been a work in progress, tackling ideas and challenges as they come. It started as staff training, then we worked with distributor representatives, now we’re going to start educating the public through Brewcademy. I look to the needs and wants of the departments and determine what I can do for each team.
What’s your favorite Rhinegeist beer?
Probably Puma (Pilsner). I’m sort of a simple classics kinda guy. I love Uncle (British Mild), too. That said, I enjoy and appreciate the wacky stuff, as well.
Favorite non-Rhinegeist beer?
If you were a Rhinegeist beer, what would you be?
I feel like, given my responsibilities here, Knowledge (Imperial IPA) makes sense. It’s pretty straightforward, nothing too frilly or fancy, but it’ll sneak up on you.
Talk about the Cicerone® program at Rhinegeist.
The Cicerone® Program just celebrated their tenth anniversary. There are four levels of certification. The first is Certified Beer Server — online test, gets you a basic understanding of beer, how to present it, how to serve it.
The next level, Certified Cicerone®, is a big jump. It’s a four hour exam with an in-person and tasting component. That’s been really exciting — we now have 19 Certified Cicerones on our team! Beyond that, they have Advanced and Master, which are really, really high-level.
Is there a piece of Rhinegeist apparel you wear the most?
Probably just the hoodies. I mix up the colors, they are so comfortable.
What do you enjoy most about this place?
The thing I enjoy most about Rhinegeist is the team we have. I know that’s what everyone says, but we’re smart, we know what’s awesome about this place. Being in the beer industry at all is fun, cool and exciting and a lot of work, but being able to be surrounded by so many amazing folks here and so many people with different backgrounds, cool stories, and unique perspectives that come together with this energy to just kick ass — it’s fantastic. I’m proud of the beer we make and the people we make it with. That starts from the attitude of Bob and Bryant and carries down to everybody. People here have your back.
Do you have a famous look-a-like?
Tormund from Game of Thrones, played by Kristofer Hivju, that’s a good one. I did that for Halloween a couple of years ago. Michael Rapaport, too, especially without my beard.
What’s the best part of your personality?
I like to think that I’m someone people can talk to. That’s something I’m proud of. I’ll listen and if I can help, I’ll help.
Sports fan? Who are your teams?
Like every good North Carolina boy, I’m a Green Bay Packers fan *laughs*. Growing up, we didn’t have the Carolina Panthers yet and my Dad was a Bart Starr fan, so that’s how I ended up being a Packers fan. And, of course, I grew up a Chicago Bulls fan, because of Michael Jordan, also a Tar Heel.
What’s your favorite album of all-time?
Definitely a tough one — it’s certainly mood-dependent. Very into Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo, Ryan Adams, what my wife refers to lovingly as “sad bastard music.” Bit of a grunge kid, so Pearl Jam’s Ten, Nevermind from Nirvana, some love for Blind Melon, too. Recently been enjoying Charles Bradley, unfortunately lost in the last year. Got to see him a couple times!
What’s your favorite sandwich?
I love sandwiches. I have a hard time saying no to a good Cuban. If we’re going global, there’s a place in Durham, North Carolina called the Old Havana Sandwich Shop, it was basically Cuban sandwiches and Cuban coffee, that’s it. But it was what dreams are made of.
What’s your take on the future of craft beer?
We’re in this era where we have more breweries in the US than we’ve ever had. However, we also have more people than we’ve ever had! The previous high mark for breweries — which we just surpassed — was pre-Prohibition and we had a third of the population then. I don’t think we’re going to see 20, 30, 40 more Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams or Founders. We will see some more, but the growth will continue to be in small neighborhood breweries. Every neighborhood can support a brewery and that’s where you’re going to see the growth.
I think people who saw the 15%-20% growth we saw a few years ago and projected that to last forever will struggle. The people who will be safe are those who plan for growth and expect a modest amount. The whole craft industry is at 6% growth right now! That’s really good, a lot of industries would kill for that number.
Succession planning is also key. We’re getting to the point where a lot of the original craft breweries’ founders are getting ready to retire — if they don’t have someone to take over, that’s when you’ll see more sales, closings, mergers.
But I think we’re nowhere close to the infamous bubble bursting. There will be smart, slow growth for people that have the skills to run a successful brewery. We do this out of a passion for beer, but it’s still a business.
What do you do when you’re not 'Geisting?
I like to say that I’m a connoisseur of all beverages. For me, checking out a new restaurant, trying a new cocktail, wine, coffee, tea, I like exploring our city and area for sure. Also, travel. I grew up in a family where our vacation was to go to the beach every year. It was great, but we didn’t really explore. It was relax, catch up with family, which is fantastic. My wife has taught me to embrace the exploration aspect of travel. We promised each other that we would always try and do a big trip every year. It’s motivated us to see the world, gain perspective, learn about other people and other cultures.
Where does the beauty of the brewery lie for you?
When I was working in production, being in the new cellar with day’s first light coming in those big glass windows. Being surrounded by all the sounds and smells of production, that’s something that a lot of people don’t get to experience.
Now, I’m in the fishbowl office above the taproom, so I really enjoy right when the taproom opens and the first people are coming in and you can see the expression of the people who have never been here before. Staff is still sitting out at tables, doing work and there’s this cool mix of beer drinkers and employees. That slight blend of the people who make up the brewery and the people who make us what we are by being supportive is cool.
What’s something about you most people don’t know?
I actually had the opportunity to go to Antarctica in grad school for research. That cemented the idea that I need to make it to all continents — you get the hard one checked off when you’re young *laughs*!
It never got dark for eight weeks. It’s weird to walk out of a bar at 1am and see light *laughs*.
How’s the bar scene in Antarctica?
There’s three *laughs*. One’s called the Coffee House — wine and beer — there’s Gallagher’s, and there’s Southern Exposure. You can only smoke in one bar, it rotates.
Do you like to cook? What’s your best dish in the kitchen?
I do, don’t do it enough. I like to do modified stir fry — take what you got and stir it around! I enjoy playing with sauces and spices, things like that. Similar to recipe design in beer!
What’s your favorite bagel topping?
Everything bagel with cream cheese, nothing fancy. Veggie cream cheese is great.
If friends used three words to describe you, what would they be?
Accessible, funny, friendly.
What's your favorite TV show?
All over the place. West Wing is really good, got to throw in Star Trek: Next Generation. An underappreciated HBO show is Six Feet Under.
What are you looking forward to about the future at Rhinegeist?
For Rhinegeist, I’m excited about our continued growth, but more how we’re going to manage it and handle it. I hope that the crazy days of insane, 100%+ growth are behind us. I think we’re doing things smartly and I’m excited to share what we do with more and more people.
For me, I’m excited to continue developing this role. Sharing my passion with people inside this building and outside this building.